Veritas Vincit Tenebram

Home » Posts tagged 'epistemology'

Tag Archives: epistemology

Proper Function and Religious Pluralism

AlvinPlantingaPhilosopher Alvin Plantinga has put forth notable ideas in both epistemology and philosophy of religion. Plantinga’s epistemology is foundationalist but it is novel by the fact that it relies on what he calls proper functionalism. His primary work in epistemology can be seen in his books Warrant: The Current Debate (WCD), and Warrant and Proper Function (WPF). However, in his book Warranted Christian Belief (WCB), he examines the intersection between philosophy of religion and epistemology. In this third book, Plantinga argues that a person can have belief in God without argument or evidence and still have rational grounds in their belief. Many objections are raised against Plantinga’s proper functionalism, the most notable being the issue of religious diversity. In this paper I will be explaining the de facto and de jure objections to religious belief, Plantinga’s arguments against classic epistemic positions, the role of warrant and proper function, and what Plantinga calls the Aquinas-Calvin model. All of this will provide a backdrop to the issue of disagreement and its relation to religion. Using the tools Plantinga offers, I will be arguing against religious pluralism and showing why this view does not affect Christian exclusivism.

There are two types of criticisms that are aimed at religious belief. The first is to show that God does in fact not exist. This is the de facto objection to belief in God. Typically atheists or agnostics have appealed to arguments such as the problem of evil to show a logical incompatibility between God’s attributes and the existence of evil. By contrast, the second type of criticism is to show that belief in God is irrational. This is the de jure objection. This objection does not seek to show that God does not exist – maybe it’s impossible to show that God does not exist – nevertheless is seeks to show that belief in God is irrational and is not up to intellectual standards (WCB 15). Plantinga’s goal is to defeat the de jure objection by showing that one can believe in God without argument or evidence. But what would a de jure objection look like? Plantinga considers possible de jure objections from classical views in epistemology and possible objections from Freud and Marx.

In chapter 3 of Warranted Christian Belief Plantinga discusses three classical views within epistemology that have dominated much of the history of philosophy and have caused a lot of confusion as to what counts as knowledge and what counts as justification. These views are classical foundationalism, deontologism, and evidentialism. These all rely on similar principles and have similar assumptions in common. Could a proper de jure objection be found amongst these? Is belief in God justified? Plantinga first considers classical evidentialism. John Locke is the main proponent of this view. Under this view, belief in God is justified if and only if there are good arguments, reasons, or evidence in favor of His existence (WCB 73-4). This view is connected to both classical foundationalism and deontologism. Foundationalism sees knowledge as a structure similar to a house. There are beliefs we hold which are dependent on other propositions within our noetic structure. Consider much of our knowledge about mathematical truths. Beliefs about geometry or trigonometry depend on beliefs about basic arithmetic. Beliefs such as these would not be fundamental or foundational to our belief structure. These beliefs would be perhaps the walls of the belief structure but definitely not the foundation. They require other beliefs or propositions in order to be held. Fundamental beliefs are known as basic beliefs. You can think of these beliefs as being at the foundation of the structure not relying on propositions or arguments for it to be held. One could hold a belief about a sense perception in a basic way. When I look outside I believe it to be dark. But, I do not believe this on the basis of argument. I take my sense perception as a starting point for my belief structure. Plantinga says that “if A is nonbasic for me, then I believe it on the basis of some other proposition B, which I believe on the basis of some other proposition C, and so on down to a foundational proposition or propositions.” This is a broad explanation of what foundationalism is (WCB 73-5). What distinguishes classical foundationalism? Classical foundationalism will regard properly basic beliefs as requiring certainty. Descartes thought these beliefs had to be self-evident or incorrigible. Locke admitted that properly basic beliefs had to be evident to the senses (WCB 75). Under this view, belief is God is rational and justified if and only if it is properly basic (as defined by Descartes and Locke) or if it has proper evidence to support it. This is classical deontologism. We are not meeting our epistemic duties if our beliefs do not meet the standard of classical foundationalism. A de jure question based off this epistemology would show that belief in God is not properly basic (it’s not self-evident or incorrigible that God exists) and it would also show that there can never be good evidence for belief in God (WCB 77-9). All three of these views are dubbed the “classical package” or CP for short. Plantinga argues that this standard of justification is self-defeating. The CP cannot be believed by its own standards of justification. The classical package itself would not be self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. Thus, it cannot be properly basic. Can an argument be given for the belief in the classical package? Plantinga doesn’t see any arguments or evidence given to justifiably believe in CP (WCB 84-6). A second problem with this view is that under it most of our beliefs would not fit its standard. We can see radical skepticism through the history of modern philosophy up until the Enlightenment. It seems that most of our beliefs would not be justified because they are neither properly basic nor are they believed with proper evidence or argument. This gives us reasons to abandon this view because of its incoherence (WCB 87). Hence, a proper de jure question cannot be found here.

Plantinga considers complaints from Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. He thinks that these complaints from Freud and Marx can generate a proper de jure question. Freud contends that religious belief comes from wish fulfillment. Belief in God is just an illusion that fulfills our desires. According to Freud, this illusion can be disbelieved (WCB 119-20). Karl Marx on the other hand thinks that theistic belief is the result of a cognitive defect resulting from the capitalistic structure. Theism is an “opiate of the masses” and a false ideology. Marx considers religious people mentally defective and insane (WCB 120-1). Both Freud and Marx are giving naturalistic explanations of how theistic belief rises. They are not critiquing the truth of theism (WCB 124). The core of the complaint is that theistic belief is the result of malfunctioning cognitive faculties not aimed at truth. It is either from wish fulfillment or capitalistic brainwashing. Plantinga considers this a viable de jure question. They are complaining that theism lacks warrant (WCB 128-30).

Warrant is a key idea in Plantinga’s epistemology. This word is similar to justification. If a belief is warranted then that belief is held in the proper way. It is acceptable to hold a belief if it is warranted (WCD 3). There are two ways to understand warrant. The first way is internalism. Warrant is dependent on internal states in a person’s epistemic functions. It relies on properties that are internal to the individual. There is a type of special access that is required for warrant. Warrant can be determined by reflection and consideration (WCD 5). Externalism would reject that warrant is dependent on this internal special access. Warrant depends on things outside of the individual’s control. For a belief to be warranted, it would have to arrive by a properly functioning mechanism (WCD 6). Plantinga takes an externalist position on warrant to address how belief in God is rationally acceptable.

Before we can see how Plantinga models Christian belief, we need to understand what proper function means in the context of warrant. Minimally, a belief has warrant if the cognitive faculties are working properly. There are other considerations that also fit into the definition of a properly functioning cognitive faculty. They are dysfunction, design, function, normality, damage, and purpose (WPF 4). The externalist sees our epistemic system in a similar way to how we see other bodily organs. Cataracts, for example, cause fogginess in the lenses of the eye and thus the eye does not function properly. Illegal drugs damage the brain and cause it to malfunction and sometimes create false beliefs which result in hallucinations (WPF 5). Warrant with respect to proper function also requires a proper environment. A cognitive faculty might be functioning properly yet the environment could cause false beliefs. A properly functioning mechanism must be in the correct environment that fits its design (WPF 7). There are two more characteristics to proper function: design plan and reliability of producing true beliefs. What Plantinga means by design is not necessarily a teleological definition. If naturalism is true, then the design plan of our faculties would be for the purpose of survival and natural selection. The same holds true for other organs of the body such as the heart. The heart’s purpose is to pump blood and keep the organism alive. A good design plan is one that is aimed at truth. The faculties might not deliver true beliefs every time, but, the probability that it will is high (WPF 13-20). It is with this externalist explanation of warrant with respect to proper function that we can understand the epistemic model that Plantinga puts forth to overcome Freud and Marx’s de jure question.

It is helpful to note that Plantinga’s overall aim in Warranted Christian Belief is to give Christians a defense of their faith. Chapter 6 is devoted to laying out the Aquinas/Calvin model of religious belief. This model is meant to address the Freud and Marx complaint. This model is based in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. Both of these thinkers thought that people have an innate knowledge of God of some sort. Our cognitive mechanism has this natural divine sense. Calvin calls this the sensus divinitatis. Beliefs about God are triggered in us in the appropriate circumstances we find ourselves in (WCB 142-4). We can find ourselves looking at the earth and all its beauty, the fine-tuning of the universe and its complexities, or maybe looking at cloud structures. Belief in God can be triggered by this wonder of the design and complexity of the universe (WCB 145). Theologians call this general revelation. General revelation is God revealing Himself through nature. In the letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that God’s invisible attributes are seen through nature and it is there so we are without excuse (WCB 143). The fingerprints of God are on the created order. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation. Special revelation is God’s revelation through the Biblical canon and testimony of His apostles in the Gospels. Knowledge about God through the sensus divinitatis is basic and not arrived by argument or evidence. Plantinga, while quoting Psalm 19, says that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands: but not by way of serving as premises for an argument” (WCB 146). Beliefs produced by the sensus divinitatis are similar to beliefs about sense perception, memory, and a priori belief. We hold beliefs about sense perception in a basic way. I take sense perception to be generally reliable (but not with the standards of absolute certainty as Locke did) and I do not have arguments or evidence for my sense perceptions. I arrive at beliefs about memory in the same basic way and the same goes for a priori beliefs. These things, sense perception, memory, and a priori beliefs, are starting points for the foundation of our noetic structure (WCB 147). Plantinga contends that under this model belief in God is properly basic with respect to justification. Here he means subjective justification. The believer is not violating her epistemic rights by holding this belief in God in a basic way. The believer might consider Freud and Marx and maybe other atheist complaints against religion. Furthermore, they might have taken a course in philosophy of religion and studied objections against God’s existence yet still be convinced that God is real. Likewise, this knowledge of God is properly basic with respect to warrant. The cognitive faculties are functioning properly in the right environment according to their design and are aimed at truth. “The purpose of the sensus divinitatis is to enable us to have true beliefs about God; when it functions properly, it ordinarily does produce true beliefs about God. These beliefs therefore meet the conditions for warrant” (WCB 149).

From this model Plantinga draws three entailments. The first is that if God does not exist then theists are probably not warranted in their belief. If God does not exist then a sensus divinitatis does not exist. It would be hard to see how theism could be warranted if God did in fact not exist. The second entailment is that if God does exist then theistic belief is warranted. God would have given us the sensus divinitatis so we could know Him and worship Him. Finally, Plantinga shows that a proper de jure question is not independent of a de facto question. In order to criticize the rationality of theism, one would need to show theism to be false. The A/C model stands or falls ultimately on the de facto question (WCB 155-60).

A common objection to Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology is the problem of religious pluralism. How can someone such as Plantinga hold an exclusivist view in Christianity? John Hick argues for religious pluralism. He does not consider all religions to be true, but rather than all religions are false. Hick argues that there is an ultimate reality to which he calls The Real and that all religions are grasping for The Real but get it wrong. The Jew, Muslim, and Christian are all trying to describe The Real based on their own interpretation (Stairs 253-4). It seems pompous to claim to one religion when there are so many other religions. After all, are not all these other believers in other religions rational in believing what they believe? How could Plantinga respond to such a charge? Christians believe that people are born with original sin and that sin has damaged every facet of the person. One facet would be the cognitive faculties. God restores these faculties by the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, non-Christians are not warranted because their cognitive mechanism is not functioning properly and is not aimed at truth. This is not necessarily their fault; the fact of sin is outside of their control. Sin also affects our affections and desires. Plantinga says that “the condition of sin involves damage to the sensus divinitatis, but not obliteration; it remains partially functional in most of us. We therefore typically have some grasp of God’s presence and properties and demands, but this knowledge is covered over, impeded, suppressed” (WCB 166-75). This could be one way to explain why there are so many religious convictions without retreating into pluralism. Isn’t The Real also a religious conviction? Does Hick consider his own view false? If he considers it true, would not he be an exclusivist? He considers every religious view other than his own to be false. There seems to be a self-defeating element to this view. The defender of proper functionalism would also charge Hick as misunderstanding the objectivity of Christian belief. He relies on internalist principles for religious experience that could be construed as subjective experience (Stairs 259). But, Plantinga’s epistemology is not subjective. The rationality of Christianity is not independent of the truth of Christianity. The pluralist misunderstands this and views all religion as a matter of interpretation.

I have sketched out Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology and the Aquinas-Calvin model. I have shown that given the noetic effects of sin that religious pluralism does not defeat Christian exclusivism. The empirical fact of sin should not cause pride but rather cause one to realize that it is because of God’s grace that one believes. Exclusivism should not be seen as prideful from a Christian worldview.


 Works Cited

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. N.p.: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant: The Current Debate. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Stairs, Allen, and Christopher Bernard. “Religious Diversity.” A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 251-70. Print.


Epistemological Theories of Truth: A Brief Overview

For centuries philosophers have been debating one another over metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and political theories. But the most important out of these is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Epistemology may very well be the most important branch of philosophy because it is needed in order to justify the truth value of propositions or beliefs. It asks questions such as: how can we know reality? How can we justify our beliefs? What is truth? Does truth exist outside of the mind or only within it? There are three main theories of truth that philosophers have posited in order to answer these questions. There is the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. This will paper attempt to explain all three and will show the strengths and weaknesses for each theory along with arguing for the best of the three (or some type of synthesis between them).

The correspondence theory says that truth is a relation between a proposition and reality. That is to say that reality is what makes the proposition true, not the other way around. If a proposition makes a statement about a reality and the statement corresponds with the reality then that proposition is true. If one were to say, “Obama is presently the President of the United States” this proposition is true because Obama actually is the present President. The proposition corresponds with reality. Prima facie, this theory seems to be correct as to what truth is. There are some criticisms of the theory, though. The first and most basic criticism deals with the existence of an external reality. How can one even know that an external reality even exists? How can a proposition correspond if there is no reality to correspond to? This objection seems absurd to take into account at first but it has honestly been taken seriously in the past. Descartes had this doubt that he could be living in a dream world and that an evil genius was deceiving him. If an external reality does not exist, then every belief we hold about an external reality is completely false. It seems impossible to fully verify and prove the existence of an external reality but is it irrational to hold a belief in an external reality? Many philosophers would say no. This objection seems to be purely out of empty skeptical doubt. The second objection to the correspondence theory is based on verification principles. How can one verify every correspondence? Consider the statement “Christ died in 30 AD.” How can one verify this proposition with something that does not exist anymore because it is now in the past? One could show a correspondence by pointing to sources such as writings from historians at the time that show Christ died. Our propositions do not have to only be verified empirically. The verification of the correspondence could be verified through a priori reasoning, external evidence such as historical documents and so on and so forth. It seems that the correspondence theory is more likely than not to be true.

The second theory is the coherence theory. This theory states that a belief is true if it coheres with other beliefs a person may hold. Beliefs are seen as a web. There seem to be a few good things about this theory. Firstly it helps avoid verification like the correspondence theory depended on. Since true beliefs are based off of other true beliefs than there is no correspondence to determine what truth is. Secondly it overcomes problems dealing with propositions that are in the past such as Christ’s death. Because the beliefs are interconnected, then one can rationally hold to beliefs regarding history based on the belief that historians are not lying or making up things. But does this coherence make the belief true? A person can have a perfect set of cohering beliefs and yet still have a false view of reality. Consider scientific beliefs. A theory such as the theory of evolution can be believed and then from that other theories can be justified on its truth value. But if evolution is false then all the beliefs cohering to evolution seem to be possibly false as well. It seems like there has to be at least one first belief that is independent of the ones that follow. Not every belief can cohere to all the others. And if there is a first belief how does one determine that belief to be true? The correspondence theory might be able to work for this first belief.

The pragmatic theory of truth is the final theory out of the three. It says that the truth of a belief is defined by its practical consequences. The truth is the one that works the best. For people back in 1800s America, slavery was true for them because it worked for them (helped them create an economy, helped with hard labor etc) but now in the modern age, slavery is false because it does not work and stirs up racism. This pragmatic view seems to create relativism – the view that truth has no real objective basis in the world and thus whatever works is true at whatever time. This could be why pragmatist C.S. Peirce thought that science was the best way of finding the truth (Lawhead 464). The truth is a consensus among people and can be falsified. One moment we are believing in some scientifically proven truth the next moment it is disproved and we are believing something else because it works for our time. What would the pragmatists say to ethical propositions? Murder is wrong only because it being wrong works for the world. This theory seems to deny mind-independent truths and seems to make everything subjective.

The correspondence theory of truth seems to be the best out of all three. It shows that propositions correspond to the world and they do not have to always cohere to other true beliefs in order to be considered true. Also they do not have to be verified in order to be true as the propositions are true in themselves if they correspond to a reality. And even if they do have to be verified, empirical verification is not the sole source of verification. If empirical verification were the only method then the existence of an external reality for instance would be entirely impossible to prove or disprove.

Works Cited

Lawhead, William F. The Contemporary Voyage: 1900 –. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. Print.

The Problem of Induction

Empiricist philosopher David Hume created what he called the problem of induction. This problem casts doubt on casual relations between the cause and the effect to any given event. Hume says that because we cannot know the future at all we cannot say that A causes B necessarily. He said that A is a separate event and B is a separate event. There is no necessary link between the two. That is to say, what we know today about the laws of nature might not be the same in the future. They might not be necessarily constant. The same applies to the past. Because we cannot know the past, we cannot know that everything is at the same constant speed as the present time.

For example, while we know what the speed of light is presently we do not know if that speed is necessary. For all we know it could be contingent. There is just no way to test the future and see if the speed will stay the same.

This is a problem for the naturalist. It seems to create much skepticism for any type of induction or scientific claim. It forces the naturalist to uses probabilities instead of absolutes for future causal events. But how would a believer in God respond to this question? Well, a theist would say that we can know with certainty that things such as the laws of nature are constant. We know this because God exists and God upholds all reality. For Him to change the laws of nature would be somewhat deceitful.

The theist must accept God as the foundation of all knowledge. In order to remove any type of doubt about causal certainty or induction, God must be accepted first.

The Double Standard of Tolerance and the Fallacy of Religious Pluralism (both of which shoot themselves in the foot)

Tolerance is the belief that everyone should accept other’s beliefs. For instance, let’s take a current issue and apply this method of tolerance to it. Jim is pro-life. The majority of people are pro-choice. Jim is intolerant for accepting a pro-life position. He’s intolerant in a few ways according to the preacher of tolerance (let’s call this belief T). Firstly, he does not want women to have rights. Secondly, he is going against the majority view. It is impossible for Jim to hold a pro-life position and accept that a pro-choice position is viable. Thus he is intolerant.

Now there are many problems here. If Jim believes X, how is it possible for him to accept not-X? It is not possible unless he gives up X and embraces not-X (which ultimately is what T wants him to do). He cannot believe both at the same time. Also, there’s a double standard here with T. T espouses that the intolerant must become tolerant. Not only that, but if they don’t become tolerant then they’re obviously prejudice, racist, or whatever name T calls them. But isn’t T being intolerant of intolerance? Let me restate that: T’s spreading of tolerance is actually intolerant of other views which do not embrace T’s views. Tolerance under the current modern thinking is unacceptable and self-defeating. Tolerance as defined as love for one another (loving the person regardless of their beliefs) should be embraced (we will call this T*). T* says that love should be the central theme of tolerance, not the acceptance of opposite views. Love and disagreement can coexist, and should more often.

Another common mistake in modern thinking is religious pluralism. Religious pluralism states that there are multiple (or all) religions that lead one to the same God. Or another definition could be that two or more religions hold same truth claims. A Moslem, a Christian, and a Jew will all be able to go to heaven. These different religions are just different paths. We will call religious pluralism P. Religious pluralists accept P generally on the basis of T but not necessarily.

Anyway, the problem with P (and T) is that it violates the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states: Two contradictory statements (A and not-A) cannot both be true at the same time. Christianity (C) cannot have the same truth as Islam (I) because it says Islam is wrong. Vice versa, Islam cannot have the same truth as Christianity because it says Christianity is wrong.

1.C is not-I
2. I is not-C
3. Therefore, C and I cannot have the same truth values/cannot be the same.
4. But P says that C and I are the same/lead to the same truths.
5. Therefore P is wrong and should not be accepted.

This seems to be the current T view when it comes to religion. No one wants to say that other religions are wrong. Also, no one wants to say that their religion is true or known to be true. But why is it wrong to say that religions that you don’t hold are wrong? Christianity at least espouses religious exclusivism. Jesus said in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal was an extremely influential mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. Pascal made huge contributions in the fields of math and science. He developed the mathematics of probability, studied the nature of vacuums, and worked on barometric pressure and its relation to vacuums. Later on in his life, he converted to the Christian faith after turmoil occurred in his life. After his conversion he got deeply interested in theology and wrote a defense of the Christian faith in a work entitled Pensées (102). Pascal believed that God could not be proven with arguments or reason but he did not exclude the use of reason completely. He says that humans are “incapable of knowing either what He is or whether He is” (104). Later on, Pascal forwards a wager for belief in God. He says that everyone must wager on God existence or nonexistence and consider the pros and cons of where one places their wager.

The wager goes like this:
1. If God exists, the believer has everything to gain but the unbeliever has everything to lose.
2. If God does not exist, the believer loses little and the unbeliever has gained nothing.
3. Therefore, place a wager on God’s existence because one will gain more if God exists.

This concept is quite interesting and thought provoking. But there are very many problems with this idea. These problems are both philosophical and theological.

The first problem with this is the wager itself. God never wants the believer’s faith to be some wager based on selfish gains of eternal joy and happiness. One should believe and worship God because He is real, because He demands it, and because it glorifies His name.

Secondly, the wager only gives two real ideologies to wager on — Christianity or atheism. Pascal does not take into account other false religions or worldviews that people could also wager on. This seems to commit the false dilemma fallacy. This fallacy sets up two positions and does not look for any alternatives to the two positions. It goes like this: position X is false, therefore position Y is true. But it is possible that position Z could be true but this position is excluded from the argument.

Thirdly, why must the believer even consider this wager? Pascal’s presupposition that God cannot really be known is false. Christians know God and worship and pray to Him. Also, there are reasons and proofs for why Christians believe in Jesus Christ. Pascal’s theological epistemology is too simplified and comes off as being incredibly ignorant. His fideism is completely unwarranted. His attack on reason to preserve the role of faith is honorable but destroys any real foundation for the Christian faith whatsoever. Reasons can be found in natural theology and in evidence for the Gospels. If reasons do not exist or if they do but cannot be proved or shown to the skeptic, then how does Christianity stand out as being true amongst other ideologies?


Works Cited

Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Modern Philosophy. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.